We know that burning fossil fuels is one of the leading contributors to climate change. That’s because it causes air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions, which affect both the atmosphere and the type of air we breathe in.
People of all ages, and all health statuses, can be negatively impacted by air pollution. However, babies and children are known to be especially sensitive to the effects of breathing in “smog” and polluted air.
A new study sought out to determine the negative effects of climate change on children’s health. Researchers found that children’s mental and physical well-being suffer when they are exposed to air pollution from fossil fuels, as well as severe weather episodes due to global warming.
Study Findings: Effects of Climate Change on Children
A 2022 article published in the New England Journal of Medicine investigated the connection between climate change, fossil fuel pollution and children’s health. Specifically, the goal was to identify how fetuses, infants and children are uniquely vulnerable to climate-related environmental impacts.
According to the results, what are the effects of climate change on our families’ health?
Overall, climate change seems to be damaging to children’s health because it physically impacts their lungs and immune systems, while also disrupting their lives.
Researchers know that babies’ and children’s immune systems and respiratory systems have weaker defenses against toxins in the environment. Their DNA can become damaged more easily, while their bodies struggle to detoxify chemicals as easily as adults.
Infants and children also breathe in more air relative to their body weights. This means they are exposed to more air pollutants, which is especially problematic considering that children have narrower airways that constrict more easily, plus higher rates of allergies and asthma.
Another problem is that babies and children suffer from high-heat exposure more severely. Their bodies have a harder time regulating their body temperatures, and they can develop a number of physical symptoms when they become overheated.
How exactly is climate change clobbering children’s health?
The article summarized some of the main concerns with climate change on babies’ and children’s health:
- Allergies ands asthma attacks are affecting more children due to increased levels of airborne pollen, caused by longer growing seasons and increased pollen production. Prenatal and postnatal exposure to various air pollutants has also been associated with reduced cognition, attention problems, attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder and autistic traits in childhood.
- Climate change can impact nutrition too. Droughts and higher levels of greenhouses in the atmosphere make it harder to grow enough food. This leaves families with less access to nutrient-rich foods, which can cause cognitive problems, malnutrition and deficiencies among children.
- Water and food supply contamination caused by pollution puts kids at greater risk for gastrointestinal infections caused by bacterial pathogens.
- Climate change is associated with increased risks of several vectorborne diseases (spread to humans from bugs and animals) that can impact young people, including malaria, dengue, Zika virus infection and Lyme disease.
- Global warming can trigger heat waves that can cause children to suffer mentally and physically. Heat stroke in children can disrupt kidney function, increase the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight, and cause dehydration.
- Major floods and hurricanes can cause drowning, physical injury and traumatic stress in children who are forced to relocate. Other effects of severe weather can include disruption of education, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
- Exposure to wildfire smoke in utero has been linked to decreased birth weight and preterm birth, plus higher rates of asthma exacerbations, wheezing, pneumonia and bronchitis in children.
Research has now linked prenatal as well as postnatal air pollution exposure to reduced IQ and other cognitive problems, developmental disorders such as ADHD and autism, depression and anxiety, and even structural changes in the brains of children. Research has also shown how climate-related displacement results in disruption of education and mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression in children. These conditions often persist, affecting health and brain function in adulthood. They also add to the list of harms that have been more widely recognized as being related to climate change and air pollution: heat-related illness, drowning and physical trauma from severe storms and floods, premature birth and low birth weight, asthma, and other respiratory disease.
What It Means
Globally, we’ve been burning far more fossil fuels over the past 70 years than in any point in history. This is taking a big toll on how children are raised, the food they eat and the air they breathe.
Greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere when fossil fuels (which include coal, petroleum, natural gas and oil) are burned to be used for energy and transportation. The two main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide and methane. These causes changes to the atmosphere that lead to global warming, increased smog and pollution, changes in climate, and other problems.
Today, approximately 1 billion children worldwide are exposed to very high levels of air pollution on a regular basis. “Air pollution” describes air that has high amounts of harmful airborne fine respirable particles, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, mercury and other volatile chemicals. These fine particles can make their way into our respiratory systems and lungs, where they cause damage.
The areas of the world with the worst air pollution are those that are densely populated and economically disadvantaged. This means that children living in large, crowded, poor cities suffer the most from ill health effects of climate change compared to those living in wealthier, cleaner, rural areas.
It’s estimated that one in three children worldwide lives in areas where at least four climate and environmental shocks (such as severe drought, flooding, air pollution and water scarcity) overlap.
Poorer countries also usually have a harder time dealing with severe weather episodes, which places kids at risk for various mental health problems when their lives are interrupted.
Tips to Protect Children’s Health
Given what we now know about the devastating effects of climate change, experts from around the globe have called on world leaders to take emergency action to help reverse climate change. While this needs to happen on a national and global scale, there are still things you can do to protect yourself and your family from negative effects of climate change and pollution.
Experts believe that we should all take certain “adaptation measures” to help protect children from environmental concerns, including:
- Focusing on providing clean water to families (at home you can use a water filter).
- Reporting any water contamination issues in your area to authorities right away.
- If possible, avoiding living in densely packed areas with high levels of air pollution.
- Establishing an evacuation plan for your family in case of weather emergencies.
- Gardening and composting at home, which can help provide you with nutrient-rich foods.
- Protecting your children from mosquito bites and common allergens around your home.
- Feeding your family as healthy a diet as you can, which helps support immune and respiratory function.
- Having your children play in safe, clean, shaded areas to limit the risk for heat stroke and other symptoms.
- How does the environment affect children’s health? A 2022 review found that babies and children are more susceptible to harmful effects of climate change due to having weaker immune systems, vulnerable respiratory systems, and a harder time coping with heat and stress.
- What are the effects of climate change on children’s health? Children can suffer from asthma, allergies, cognitive impairment, malnutrition, anxiety, PTSD and other issues due to climate change’s impact.
- Those living in underdeveloped and poor communities are at the greatest risk.
- Authorities are focused on protecting children by paying attention to the water and food supply, reducing air pollution, as well as limiting the risk for heat stroke.